Monday, 23 April 2018 06:00


Erotics of undressing

Christianity made the consummate representration of eroticism possible in the figurative arts because it introduced a dynamic that was insufficiently developed in biblical and classical Antiquity. The force of this dynamic could be directed toward taking clothes off or putting them on. In fact, Saint Paul says ”you have put off the old nature with its practices and you have put on a new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Colossians 3.9-10). From the first action – undressing – came the erotics of the Reformation and Mannerism; from the second –dressing – the erotics of the Counter-Reformation and the Baroque.
Georges Bataille was the most acute contemporary interpreter of the erot-ics of undressing. In his work, erotic desire and the drive to undress oneself and others, to transgress the taboo of nakedness are inseparably fused. He wrote:” Stripping naked is the decisive action. Nakedness offers a contrast to self-possession, to self-possession discontinuous existence, in other words. It is a state of communication… Obscenity is our name for the uneasiness which upsets the physical state associated with self--possession, with the possession of a recognized and stable individuality”.
Bataille worked within a tradition that assigns great spiritual value to undressing. After Saint Paul, this spiritual value found an important expression in Saint Jerome`s proposition, nudus nudum Christum sequi (to follow the naked Christ naked), which became a highly developed idea in the Middle Ages. In the Reformation, it was understood in an even more radical sense: the Cross, the punishment and agony of Jesus, was considered the pinnacle, the ultimate point, of Christian experience. From this, it follows that perdition, torture, annihilation, the abyss, confusion, disorder, fear, trembling and death present themselves as models of erotic experience.
For Bataille, the fundamental affinity between the sexual drive and death resides in the iconoclastic tendency that animates both of them. Both tend to dissolve form, destroy the image and violate beautiful appearances in search of a more essential truth, a more radical purity, an absolute. This tendency, therefore, does not stop at nudity; it goes further. The naked surfaces of the body are still only a shadow, an image, a mask. For Bataille, sexuality and death carry the process of denudation to its most extreme consequences. To be wounded, exposed, opened or flayed, on the one hand, or to wound, expose, open or flay on the other, means to lose oneself in an abyss that ruptures the body`s deceptive continuum.
This experience reaches a point that can no longer be considered transit, and it is doubtful whether it can truly be defined as erotic. As described by Bataille, denu-dation taken to the extreme does not allow for a return to clothes. Clothing is held in categorical opposition to nudity. The process of denudation seeks rest, peace and repose in conjunction with a totality of being, in the unlimited fusion of the orgy, in a new metaphysical unity. It precludes the very possibility of representation, because above all its iconoclasm turns against images, against any representation of nakedness. Bataille himself, however, did not adhere to this metaphysical extrem-ism. In his book Les larmes d`Eros (The Tears of Eros), he reproduced the world`s great- est masterpieces of erotic painting and commented on them with extraordinaryacumen. How can this paradox be resolved?
In reality, the process of undressing has limits. Beyond these limits, all erotic tension is lost and it falls into a metaphysical stasis. The most eloquent proof of this is demonstrated in those sixteenth-century paintings by Lucas Cranach the Elder, Hans Baldung Grien and the Mannerists to whom Bataille assigned such importance in his history of eroticism. These paintings are erotic not only because they make the iconoclastic tendency their own, but also because they pose a limit to iconoclasm.
It has been observed that at the end of the Middle Ages, a new image of the female nude spread through the Northern countries, with characteristics profoundly dif-ferent from the Greek nude. While the dominant rhythm of the classical nude came from the curve of the hips, in the Northern nude this fundamental rhythm came from the curve of the belly. It has also been said that this Northern nude should be asso-ciated with the Christian tendency to find spiritual meaning in ugliness, represent-ing bodies in their ”naked” reality rather than their ideal nudity.
However, the true innovation of Christianity did not consist so much in having reevaluated ugliness, or in having introduced the exemplary image of the wounded, naked crucifix, so much as in having kept the possibility of the image alive after having questioned it. It took painting many centuries to arrive at the figure of a naked Christ, wounded and dead on the Cross. Only in the immediate wake of the Reformation with Grünewald and Holbein did painting dare to represent Christ as a decaying corpse.
The fact is that only with the Reformation did the problem of the image of Christ`s death present itself as a solution to the problem of the death of the image. Mean-while, Christ could be represented naked, crucified, dead and decaying, to the extent that the image was only a veil through which His divine and unrepresentable nature could show through. To depict Christ as an Apollo, as the Renaissance proposed, meant to fall into idolatry, paganism. Not to represent him at all would have meant supposing that the human figure assumed by Christ could identify itself metaphysica-lly, through iconoclastic asceticism, with a God that remains, as Luther taught, essentially other. Finally, it meant to aspire to a holiness that by definition is denied to man. The Reformation painters resolved these problems by assigning to the veil an importance equal to that of the nude and establishing a transit between nude and veil of the greatest erotic significance. The veil was not a mere obstacle to seeing with the naked eye, but actually the condition that makes vision possible. The expression that typifies the theology of the Lutheran cross, Deus absconditus, means that God manifests himself, reveals himself in a veiled form. To lift off those veils means to preclude the possibility of revelation itself.
There were two dangers for Reformation painting: the iconophilia of the classical -nude and the iconoclasm of metaphysical mysticism. An intermediate space had to be created, within which a few dozen sixteeenth-century paintings, masterpieces- of the Western erotics of disrobing, were born. The numerous versions of Lucretia by Cranach, Durer (Melanchthon considered Dürer and Grünewald to be the painters of the Reformation), Baldung Grien and others, have a double meaning.- Caught in the act of lacerating the nude and the canvas together, both the flesh and the painting are saved from destruction. Both are preserved as indispensable veils over a truth that in its nudity remains unrepresentable and other. Their eroticism consists in their being undressed, in their posing no obstacles to undressing, in their self-contradiction as images, in their posing no obstacles to their own destruction; and no less in that they still present their own nudity as a veil that cannot be lifted and iconoclasm as an action that cannot be finished. The impulse toward denuda-tion and truth should be followed without reservation because only in this way can the intimate connection that binds nude and veil be discovered - the truth as well as its concealment. In the painting Venus and Cupid by Lucas Cranach the Elder, at the Galleria Borghese in Rome, the erotics of undressing reaches its peak. With her gaze, this Venus creates and follows a series of continuous transits, at once endlessly granted and destroyed, in which the spectator is lost. From her body, which repeats the cliché of the Northern nude with extraordinary grace, the viewer`s attention is displaced to the tree that she touches so sweetly. This tree is without doubt the cruciifix tree, the xulon, the wooden rood where Christ`s naked body was hanged, tha foundation of Reformation eroticism. However, it is this that opens up, splitting toward the base of the trunk, while Venus`s body has an organic suppleness that evokes the stauros, the stake planted upright - the Cross. Penetrated and penetrator have switched places: what ought to open up is closed and veiled, and what ought to remain compact shows a cleft and is delicately caressed. The nude Venus veils the Cross. One must see what cannot exactly be seen: that here the Redeemer`s body is hidden, and vice versa for the tree. The Cross veils the nude Venus: one must see what one does not suspect is visible; here the naked Venus is hidden.
The transit established by Cranach between the mythological and the religious was developed in a different way by Parmigianino in the Madonna della rosa. With Cranach, we saw a Venus that resembles Christ; here we have a Madonna that resemb-les Venus. Such an exchange, however, has a completely different significance from the one developed by Neoplatonic humanism in the Renaissance, for which, as Edmund Spenser puts it in An Hymne in Honour of Beautie, ”soule is forme, and doth the bodie make.” Parmigianino`s canvas is based on the experience of iconoclasm that he knew from the terrible sack of Rome in 1527 and from which he emerged miraculously unharmed. In Renaissance painting, Venuses and Madonnas resemb-led each other because both participated in the metaphysical idea of beauty. The new iconoclasm, which pushed the divine beyond form toward an unrepresentable othherness, made possible the motion, the passage, the transit from one form to the other. Nothing remains stable in its metaphysical identity. Everything circulates and changes. Mannerism is precisely the artistic experience of this circulation joined to the awareness that any form can veil otherness. The extraordinary eroticism of Parmigianino`s canvases does not consist simply in the veil that covers the Madonna`s lovely breasts, nor in the lascivious charm of the child, but in the transit that it creat-es between the rose and Christ`s genitals. The first inspired motion is iconoclastic: her grabbing hold of and violating the rose with one hand, and taking the little rose-bud of flesh with the other. But the impulse is held back. The act is left incom-plete. The Madonna`s gaze does not fall exclusively upon one object, but takes in both. Her hands, in hesitant pose, seem incapable of taking what has been offered. The incompleted act functions in the same way as the veil over the pubic area of Bronzino`s Venus or the nudes of the School of Fontainebleau. There is a threshold to undressing, and once it is passed all motion stops. Like the veil, the incompleted act opens and maintains the intermediate space between clothing and nudity, between Hebrew and Greek culture that the Cross, the point of encounter between opposing metaphysics, opened up.
Translated into 11lish by Roger Friedman.
Published in ZONE 4, Fragments for a History of the Human Body, edited by Michel Feher with Ramona Naddaff and Nadia Tazi, New York 1989.
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